#FolkloreThursday: Horizontal vs. Vertical Transmission

#FolkloreThursday: Horizontal vs. Vertical Transmission June 29, 2017

In folklore studies we like to nerd out about how precisely folklore gets transmitted. That’s where this handy distinction comes in.

Photo by London Scout on Unsplash. In public domain.
Photo by London Scout on Unsplash. In public domain.

Puzzling through how folklore is transmitted, and what makes this transmission different than other modes of culture (pop culture; the mass media; literature) is one of the key questions we address in my discipline. Understanding how folklore gets transmitted between adjacent groups is an important part of the puzzle piece, and that’s why I like to teach my students about horizontal vs. vertical transmission.

We know that folk groups are not homogeneous or monolithic; the different members might be invested in that identity at different levels or in varying ways. Knowing someone’s religion or ethnicity or career doesn’t let you make a ton of assumptions about their identity without also knowing their gender, nationality, sexual orientation, and more.

When describing how transmission happens within folk groups, we refer to active vs. passive bearers, or those who can competently perform a folklore text vs. those who recognize it but don’t necessarily transmit it.

But when we want to talk about how folklore is used to uphold group boundaries, or what happens when folklore is transmitted between groups separated by hierarchies, I like to use the concept of horizontal vs. vertical transmission.

In horizontal transmission, folklore is transmitted between members of a folk group that do not have major hierarchies separating them, such as age, social class, or other authoritative titles (being a religious leader or head of family, for example). In vertical transmission, folklore is transmitted across those hierarchies, either from a higher-up member of a folk group to a lower-down one, or from a folk group that is hierarchically ranked above another adjacent group to members of that lower-down group.

My favorite example is how in children’s folklore (definition post coming soon!), folklore transmitted from one child to another would be considered horizontal transmission, while folklore transmitted from adult to child (like a lullaby) would be considered vertical transmission. Age – and legal adult status – definitely count as a hierarchy in my view.

Other examples of how to use these terms might come from folk groups that cohere around the practice of folk religion, with higher-ranking members vertically transmitting lore to lower-ranking members, or members of equal status transmitting lore horizontally to one another. In occupational folk groups, too, we find people who don’t necessarily occupy institutionally powerful roles (because, again, that’s not as interesting to folklorists), but rather are recognized within their peer groups as more experienced hence deserving of respect. These old-timers would transmit lore vertically to the newcomers, while people on more equal footing would transmit lore to one another horizontally.

The idea of relating the transmission of folklore to social power is not a new one. As I write in Essay on Folklore and Power:

One of the seminal works addressing the relationship of identity and power in folklore is Richard Bauman’s “Differential Identity and the Social Base of Folklore.” Bauman’s examples, drawn from genres such as taunts and jokes that bridge the communicative spaces between social groups, demonstrate that folklore is a response to and is inextricably wrapped up in the relationships among groups of people with differing access to control over their circumstances (Bauman 1972). Bauman’s essay initiated a shift in folkloristics towards performance as an orienting model. Rather than focusing on the folklore text, scholars began studying the context in which the text was situated, some going so far as to claim that there is no originary text, but instead that folklore is emergent, created in performance (Bauman 1984).

The shift toward performance helped illuminate many of the ways in which power structures folklore events. Patricia Sawin is one of Bauman’s students and one of the few folklorists to apply the power-oriented gender and identity theories of Judith Butler to performance theories of folklore, arguing that comprehensive studies of folklore and power must begin “by looking for evidence of a power imbalance and ask how the esthetic event impinges on and plays out for the less powerful participants” (Sawin 2002, 55). In her work with traditional singer Bessie Eldreth, Sawin demonstrates that “esthetic performance is a central arena in which gender identities and differential social power based on gender are engaged” (48). In other words, folklore performances—which range from song-singing and story-telling sessions to kinesthetic events such as folk-dances and festivals to the creation and consumption of material culture like holiday foods or customary garments—are fraught with power. Power can be contested or reinforced within a performance, and the power at stake need not be gender relations, but could also be ethnic or national tensions.

Describing the transmission of folklore in relation to hierarchy applies no matter what type of folklore we’re talking about: verbal, customary, or material. That’s because folklore occurs in many a medium, and it’s not the medium through which it’s expressed that makes it folklore, but rather the mode of transmission.

This insight – that its transmission is what makes folklore unique – is why Lynne McNeill writes:

Well, you try to explain what a creation myth, a jump-rope rhyme, a Fourth of July BBQ, and some bathroom graffiti have in common, and you’ll find it’s not a terribly easy task. (2)

Attention to the transmission of folklore thus lets us study seemingly disparate topics under the aegis of one discipline. And, as I argue in this post, awareness of social hierarchies plays a key role in how (well) we do this.

I should note that my use of these terms is not universal. William Pooley, critiquing the phylogenetic analysis that’s recently come up (and not been well-received by folklorists), notes:

The authors say that they found that many tales are surprisingly limited to vertical rather than horizontal transmission, by which they mean that – contrary to what we might expect – tales tend to travel down through the generations within cultural or linguistic groups, rather than between groups who live next to one another.

So in this sense, horizontal and vertical connote whether folklore is transmitted through time in a space-bound group, or throughout space among contemporaneous groups. This use goes back to at least Elias Lönnrot, author of the Finnish national epic The Kalevala. In Lauri Honko’s interpretation of Lönnrot’s research (that has superorganic and possibly devolutionary assumptions going on),

Lönnrot regarded the vertical transmission of tradition from one generation to the next as more conservative and preservative than the horizontal spreading of a song often after a single hearing.

I prefer the terms synchronic and diachronic to refer to these phenomena as we study them, but that’s a topic for another post.

Anyway, if you’re in one of my folklore classes, you’ll undoubtedly get introduced to these terms. What are some other examples of horizontal vs. vertical folklore transmission that come to mind?



Bauman, Richard. “Differential Identity and the Social Base of Folklore.” In Toward New Perspectives in Folklore, eds. Américo Paredes and Richard Bauman. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972. 31-41.

Bauman, Richard. Verbal Art as Performance. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 1984 [1977].

McNeill, Lynne S. Folklore Rules: A Fun, Quick, and Useful Introduction to the Field of Academic Folklore Studies. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2013.

Sawin, Patricia. “Performance at the Nexus of Gender, Power, and Desire: Reconsidering Bauman’s Verbal Art as Performance from the Perspective of Gendered Subjectivity as Performance.” Journal of American Folklore 115.455 (2002): 28-61.

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